For his last opera, Massenet was clearly dwelling on the big themes in life: love, death, and how to turn someone down nicely. Based on Cervantes' tale of the eponymous knight, his sidekick, Sancho Panza and much worshipped la belle Dulcinée, it's funny, uplifting and tragic all at the same time. What's not to like?
Dulcinée is courted by four suitors during a party in a crowded square. When Don Quichotte and his faithful servant Sancho Panza arrive, Juan mocks his eccentric nature, but another suitor, Rodriguez, defends Quichotte, reminding everyone of the knight’s noble ambitions. As the party breaks up, Don Quichotte serenades Dulcinée, only to be interrupted by Juan who challenges him to a duel. Dulcinée intervenes and sends Juan away, chastising Quichotte for his temper. She tells him how Ténébrun, a bandit, has stolen her necklace, and asks Quichotte to retrieve it for her. Quichotte vows to find and return the necklace.
On their quest, Don Quichotte and Sancho Panza roam through the countryside. Sancho is resentful of being on this mission solely at Dulcinée’s whim, and launches into a tirade against women. However, Don Quichotte has mistaken some windmills on the horizon for giants, and charges to attack them. Alas, his attack fails as he gets caught on one of the windmill’s blades.
Quichotte and Sancho are taking a well-deserved rest when the bandits catch up to them. Don Quichotte, however, wins the criminals over by explaining his purpose in life – his quest as a knight errant, to right all wrongs, to love the poor, and even to honour bandits like his present attackers. They are so moved by this explanation that they hand over the necklace.
At home, Dulcinée is once again surrounded by suitors, but ignores their compliments. She dreams of a love of another kind. Sancho arrives and announces his master. Dulcinée greets them playfully and is delighted at the return of her necklace. She rewards the Don with a kiss, and he declares his love for her, asking for her hand in marriage. Dulcinée lets him down gently, despite the mockery of the crowd. Sancho lashes out at the others to protect his master.
Later, Don Quichotte and Sancho are alone and the Don is close to death. He thinks of all the ways he should have rewarded Sancho for his loyal service, and promises him an “island of dreams.” As he dies, he dreams of his Dulcinée.